Can hospitals help bridge the partisan divide to feed hungry families?

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Volunteer Monroy Martinez, left, hands out a free to-go lunch to a young boy at the St. Mary's Food Bank Alliance in Phoenix.

Pennsylvania Congressmen G.T. Thompson (R) and Dwight Evans (D) from the U.S. House Agriculture Committee recently met with Philadelphia-area hospitals and community partners for a listening session on the issues of food stamps (officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP), hunger and health care.

Danielle Cullen, an emergency physician who represented the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia at the meeting, explained that she has treated children with poorly controlled type 2 diabetes and babies with seizures, all due to hunger.

The problem is more widespread than you might think. For six months last year, Cullen and her team asked patients and families about hunger. Nearly one in four children (23.6 percent) who visited the emergency department had gone hungry during the previous year.

Temple University Hospital is finding similar results among adult patients hospitalized at the main campus. More than one in four (27 percent) say they’ve gone hungry. At some point during the last year, both food and the money to buy it ran out.

Temple community health workers ask patients about food insecurity during routine follow-up calls made two to three days after discharge. If patients are struggling to get enough to eat, they are offered immediate transfers to:

  • Greater Philadelphia Coalition against Hunger, for help applying for SNAP.
  • United Way’s 211, for a list of nearby food banks and other food or social service resources.

Like the urban southeast, 13 rural Pennsylvania counties have rates of food insecurity greater than the state average. Hospitals and health systems are hosting food pantries and farmers’ markets, establishing food pharmacies and on-campus gardens, and more.

In rural Pennsylvania, Summit Health’s Endowment foundation funds a food gleaning program. During 2016, 80 farms, orchards, and personal gardens donated about 300,000 pounds of fresh, local produce that — with the help of 70 community partners — reached 23,000 people in need.

Clearly, health care is one of the places where the rubber meets the road in terms of the costs of our social safety net — or lack thereof. Which brings us back to the bipartisan congressional meeting about SNAP.

Hospitals get it. They must help Americans become healthier over the long term, in addition to taking excellent care of them when they are sick. Less need for intensive hospital care and less spending per capita on health care will count among the many benefits of that better health.

As a result, assisting at-risk patients with life issues that contribute to ill health and repeat hospitalizations increasingly falls to hospitals.

Hospitals and health systems have accepted the challenge. But they need a social safety net that meets them halfway, especially if they are serving a vulnerable community with many socioeconomic challenges.

To date, SNAP has proven to be the nation’s most efficient and effective way to fight hunger. Temple, Children’s Hospital, and five other Philadelphia-area health systems are working together to address food insecurity. They are counting on SNAP to help their patients.

The bipartisan meeting was timely. Funding for SNAP is up for renewal. The U.S. House will likely pass legislation to renew in May. Unfortunately, the proposal calls for changes that will reduce the reach of the program.

This legislative action will likely be very partisan. But hospitals and community partners at the meeting can take heart in the bipartisan listening on display as they made their case. (The most important facts and figures from their presentation are summarized in this brief, one-page, document, complete with sources.)

In today’s political environment, reaching bipartisan consensus about the nature of a problem and its impact has to count as a win.

Andy Carter is president and CEO of the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania and also a member of the Inquirer’s Health Advisory Panel.